Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 1999

I could rant and rave and hurt a lot of people's feelings. Or I could keep sum this up in one sentence: This is an amateur production of "Side by Side by Sondheim". That is really all you need to know. If you want to see and hear amateur singers staged by an amateur director, get your tickets and go. I, personally, would rather just sing Sondheim loudly in the shower when I want to hear him done badly.

This is not to say that there aren't some people with nice singing voices on the stage at BCC. Some have professional training and can actually hit the right notes. But the ensemble as a whole is not strong, and they have not been encouraged to perform as an ensemble.

I would guess part of the allure of a musical review to a community theatre group would be the same as the allure of those God-awful evenings of one-acts. You really don't need to have everyone in the same room at the same time to rehearse until the bitter end. So-and-so rehearses his songs Tuesdays at four; and these two rehearse their duets on Saturday mornings. Bring it all together and you have a show, right? Wrong.

Now, I did see full-dress rehearsal, which was the first time this troupe had performed this show before an audience (there were about two dozen people rattling around inside the Boland Theatre) so perhaps that was way everyone walked out on stage and looked like a deer caught in the headlights. But I suspect it had a lot more to do with the inadequate efforts of Sam Slack.

I arrived before the house was open, and so I looked at the poster for the show in the lobby where I noticed that the name after the words "directed by..." had been blacked out. Smelling the excitment of a theatrical scandal (what HAD they done to the original director? Was it a bloodless coup or were the dressing rooms riddled with bullet holes?) I took the poster down and held it up to the light to try to read the name, but to no avail. Once inside the theatre the program informed me that Sam Slack had "staged" the production. No one was credited as "Director" although that was how Slack referred to himself when he gave the curtain speech. Hmmmm....

After seeing the show I agree with the poster and the program. No one directed this disaster, but Slack is definitely the prime suspect in the slaying, er, staging of it.

When your singers look like deer about to meet their death under the wheels of a Mack truck, and they are struggling to sing loudly enough to be heard, let alone on key, asking them to MOVE is risky business. But watching 28 songs performed by terrified people standing rigidly still would be pretty awful, and so every now and then Slack has prodded them to walk a few steps or to make an arm gesture. The terror in their eyes and the strain in their voices increases with every step, but at the performance I saw no one tripped, although one poor fellow was unable to get his arms out of their dramatic poses leaving him frozen in ludicrous positions long after the final bars of his songs.

You notice that I am not naming the performers here. If they were professionals I would, but they are our friends and neighbors and I think they deserve to be able to slide gracefully back into their daily lives. They have been bold to stick their toes into new waters, it is the fault of Slack and the Board of Town Players (oh, look, Slack is on the Board of Town Players!) that they immediately disappeared into the deep end of the pool with nary a trace of bubbles.

Most of this show is singing (certainly none of this production is acting!) but there are dreadful bits of "continuity" (read: blathering between the songs while the next batch of singers stands on the stage looking like they are about to throw up) by British author and stage director Ned Sherrin. If Mr. Sherrin is not already dead, will some one please kill him? The patter is not funny. If anything, it is more painful than the singing. And it has been oh-so-cleverly updated and peppered with local references. Just shoot me now.

Finally, we come to Marc Grimshaw's set, which is actually quite glamorous for a community theatre attempt. Except for this one pillar. Grimshaw has included six glittery pillars in the set. Five of them lead the eye gracefully towards upstage center. The sixth is smack-dab in the middle of the stage where people bump in to it and get caught behind it. I wanted to get up and intermission and chop the bloody thing down! Leonard Yon, Barbara Till, and Jean Barbas have assembled costumes that actually fit and flatter the performers. I am so relieved that the poor people weren't made to look any more uncomfortable up there. I would just like to note that feather boas are not sexy. They are silly and they moult all over the stage. Hope may be a thing with feathers, but sex is not.

"Side by Side by Sondheim", produced by the Town Players of Pittsfield, runs October 1, 2, 8, and 9 at the Robert Boland Theatre on the campus of Berkshire Community College, 1350 West Street, in Pittsfield. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. Call the Town Players box office at 413-443-9279 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999

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